The spire has a city’s width and a mountain’s height, and I was well on my way to conquering it. I’d overcome acid-spewing slime creatures, barreled through gremlin cultists, and confronted autonomous arcane artifacts. I’d prowled the halls of mysterious libraries, gathered mystical relics, and sharpened my blades. But there was a problem: The velvet choker I was wearing was making it really hard to play cards.
Despite releasing back into Early Access on Windows, Mac, and Linux back in November, Slay the Spire has been slowly climbing the Steam charts over the past couple of weeks. After spending a few hours with it, it’s easy to see why: It combines the sense of discovery in rogue-lites like FTL with the clever, interlocking rules of a card game like Hearthstone. (In fact, Hearthstone’s own Dungeon Run mode offers a comparable, but distinct experience).
In Slay the Spire, you play an adventurer trying to climb the titular tower. You move from node to node across a series of maps, and each node can lead to a fight, a merchant, a special event, a treasure chest, or a camp where you can rest or upgrade your abilities, which take the form of cards.
Those cards come into play when you face off against the spire’s numerous foes. It’s pretty basic at first: You move to a new spot and get drawn into combat, at which point you’re dealt a hand of cards from your deck and three points of “energy,” which you spend to play those cards. Doing all of this feels intuitive, not only because of the game's smooth interface, but also because of how Slay the Spire slowly unfolds its complexity.
In the earliest fights of the game, chances are you draw some basic attack and defense cards, which you play to whittle down your enemy and block incoming attacks. Maybe you drew a special card that does a little less damage, but also makes your foe vulnerable to followup attacks. Or which blocks a little more incoming damage, but requires you to discard a card from your hand. Or which temporarily weakens every enemy you're fighting, but which you can only use once per combat encounter. Even if you've never played a game like this before, you'll likely be able to follow the action here.
You fight until you win or lose, reshuffling your deck as you play. Your enemies will fight back with attacks, buffs, and debuffs of their own, and if they manage to drop your HP to 0, that’s the game, time to start over. But if you win, you get gold and a chance to add one of three random cards to your deck, giving you one more trick for the next fight.
And as you go along adding cards to your deck (and picking up special relics that give you wild bonuses, like getting double damage on every tenth attack), something really incredible happens: You find out which character you’re playing.
At the top of the game, you pick from one of two character classes and are assigned a couple of special starting cards, a big list of other cards you could find later, and a key ability that you’ll never lose, like the ability to heal a bit after every fight. But as you begin choosing which cards to add to your deck, a strategy starts to appear. Huh, that’s my third poison card… maybe I’m making a poison-themed deck? And then suddenly, you’re making a poison-themed deck.
It’s like doing a pencil relief: You start with a blurry blob and then, bit by bit, the picture comes together.
Building your deck as you play isn’t new to card games, with classics like Dominion and Star Realms letting players put together a deck over the course of a match. But because you’re building over a longer period of time, Slay the Spire’s deckbuilding feels more like finding gear in the roguelikes that inspired it. Except instead of magic sword or a rocket launcher, you’ve found a card that doubles the amount of damage you can do in one turn.
Or, you know, a velvet choker.
The choker in question is one of the relics you can find during play, many of which dramatically shift how you play the game—think of Binding of Isaac’s items, if you need a touchstone. For example, if you find "Tough Bandages," you’ll gain 3 block points every time you discard a card: Suddenly, those cards that make you burn through your hand look a little more beneficial.
There are over 100 of these, and you can find them in random chests, get them from special events, or earn them from boss battles. And many of them, like the velvet choker, come with a trade off.
See, the choker offered me what seemed like an amazing power when I found it: “Gain 1 energy at the start of each turn.” That extra point of energy allowed me to reliably play an extra card every turn. And at the time, its cost seemed like it could be totally ignored: “You cannot play more than 6 cards per turn.” Six cards? Come on, how could I ever afford to play six cards in a single turn? That’s my whole hand! Plus, my best attacks cost two energy, and even with the choker I only have four energy to work with.
A few fights later, it became increasingly clear that the entire strategy of my deck was to play cards that cost zero energy, and to draw (or create) extra cards to keep my combos going. And now, on the top of the spire, I was fighting foes who had double or triple the health points I did, who had complex abilities and protections from my most powerful abilities. And I was stuck with cards in my hand I couldn’t play because of that velvet choker.
By the time I made it to the last boss, I was down to a handful of HP, but I’d also figured out exactly how to play my deck. It felt like I’d built an engine, and now it was shifting into its highest gears. The fight was exhilarating. As I streamed it out on Twitch, someone in the chat compared it to being in the final circle in a match of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. You can watch the whole stream right here, or jump to the final 20 minutes or so to see how it wraps up:
Slay the Spire is able to make things so tense because of its transparency: All the numbers are right there in front of you, the math doesn’t lie, and you’re always given enough info to make educated decisions. But there’s also enough complexity in the info presented that you’ll inevitably make a few misplays or forget about an enemy’s special trait.
Like both my favorite card games and my favorite roguelikes, victory in Slay the Spire always feels earned, a reward for cleverness, attention, and good planning. Even more importantly, failure is a chance to learn and an invitation to play again. Next time, maybe I won’t wear the choker.